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Mile High Mutiny: Major Shakeup Hits Denver Fest

By Brian Brooks | Indiewire June 3, 2009 at 11:23AM

A dramatic mass exodus is underway at the Denver Film Society, organizer of the three decade old Denver International Film Festival. Longtime veterans of the organization, including Festival Director Britta Erickson and Artistic Director Brit Withey, as well as esteemed co-founder Ron Henderson, have resigned in Denver. And now they are being followed out the door by some seventeen other people at the Film Society and the festival. The move marks a striking mutiny currently taking place at the leading Colorado film institution.
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Mile High Mutiny: Major Shakeup Hits Denver Fest
The Starz Film Center in Denver.

A dramatic mass exodus is underway at the Denver Film Society, organizer of the three decade old Denver International Film Festival. Longtime veterans of the organization, including Festival Director Britta Erickson and Artistic Director Brit Withey, as well as esteemed co-founder Ron Henderson, have resigned in Denver. And now they are being followed out the door by some seventeen other people at the Film Society and the festival. The move marks a striking mutiny currently taking place at the leading Colorado film institution.

Word of the mass exodus from the Denver organization and festival, an increasingly popular stop on the fest circuit for filmmakers and industry alike, began to emerge late last week with the departures apparently stemming from a growing rift with Burleigh "Bo" Smith, the new DFS executive director who joined the organization in October. Smith, a twenty-one year veteran who was the head of film, video and concerts at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, was chosen in part by DFS founder Ron Henderson who began his retirement in 2007. Henderson had agreed to stay on as a consultant but also gave final notice earlier this week after attempting to rescue the group in the wake of the impending departures. He is currently negotiating his departure date.

The volatile situation at the Denver Film Society and film festival has taken quite dramatic turns in recent days as more and more resignations were confirmed. indieWIRE reached out to Bo Smith and board chair David Charmatz yesterday, but both have provided only limited comments and responses to our inquiries. David Charmatz, an executive at lead Denver fest sponsor Starz Entertainment, is understood to have led an emergency board meeting about the situation on Tuesday. The body, in an apparently sharply divided decision, ultimately voted to continue to back Smith as the executive director of the organization.

Denver Film Society founder Ron Henderson with his wife Judy. Photo by Brian Brooks/indieWIRE

"Let me say that I can't give any specifics as we do not comment on personnel matters," Smith told indieWIRE Tuesday by email. "Here's what I [will] tell you is that due to realities of the current economy, DFS, like many other organizations, will need to downsize its staff. The result of informing the staff of this situation was that some staff members decided to resign from the organization," he continued. But, Smith was countered by a key organization figure today.

"That's not true," said departed artistic director Brit Withey in a telephone call with indieWIRE this afternoon. "The staff began resigning before there were any statements made that there were going to be layoffs," he explained, "The reason the staff is leaving is because of Bo [Smith's] handling of the organization and not the economic situation facing the organization." Withey, however, confirmed that DFS is facing financial challenges just as many other film festivals are.

The mass resignations are deep, according to multiple sources reached by indieWIRE today, ranging from programmers to logistics staff including projectionists and other recurring personnel who have worked for the festival for up to three decades. "Year-round staff are going as well as others, [from] programmers to customer service people, guest arrangements - every aspect of the festival are leaving," Withey told indieWIRE. A list provided by an insider detailed a total of twenty people who have resigned in recent days. Britta Erickson declined to comment but confirmed her departure. One source indicated that there are just five staff members left at the Starz Film Center, two who work in development, one in membership, and a receptionist. No one will be left on the Film Center staff as of June 12, the source indicated.

"I see the organization not continuing under its present leadership, I'd rather leave now than see it fall apart," Starz FilmCenter General Manager Oaken Beeson told indieWIRE today. He is among the many people who have resigned in Denver. "We've been ignored by the board of directors and I don't want to be there as the organization destroys itself."

Details about the apparently intense internal conflict are still sketchy, but Withey indicated staff members were unhappy with Smith's programming decisions and general leadership style. Pressed further after sending the statement to indieWIRE yesterday, Bo Smith reiterated via email, "We are making no changes to our annual festival. The 32nd Starz Denver Film Festival runs from Nov. 12 to 22." He indicated that Ron Henderson remains the senior program consultant and touted year-round programming, including upcoming series and events at the Starz Film Center. But, Henderson has said he is leaving.

Ron Henderson founded the Denver film organization over 30 years ago in the Mile High city, with the first festival taking place in 1978. Though he formally retired from the organization nearly two years ago, he has remained close to the organization and an important consultant who worked closely with Britta Erickson and Britt Withey. After putting together a plan to save the organization in recent days in the wake of the resignations, he finally informed Smith of his official resignation on Monday.

"Over the past 31 years, I have watched with great pride this organization grow from a once-a-year single event (the Denver International Film Festival), to a vibrant year-round cultural arts organization (the Denver Film Society), to a highly respected bricks and mortar film arts institution (the Starz FilmCenter) which has become a jewel in Denver's rich cultural landscape," Ron Henderson told indieWIRE in a statement this afternoon. "As the Denver Film Society begins a new era, it is clearly time for me (as they did so often in those Hollywood movies I watched as a child) to ride off into the sunset. My fervent hope is that the Denver Film Society, in this volatile transitional period, lives happily ever after."

Although the Denver Film Festival remains a regional event, it has become an important one, having increased its stature in recent years. Henderson, Erickson and Withey have been active on the North American film festival circuit and the fest has cultivated a loyal fanbase of yearly attendees that stretches well beyond Colorado. indieWIRE has also covered the Denver Film Festival annually for many years.

Last summer, DFS helped organize the Impact Film Festival during the Democratic National Convention in Denver, spotlighting documentaries. Erickson, who joined the festival in 1999, co-produced a documentary about the nomination last August, titled simply, "Convention," which is directed by a group of documentary filmmakers, spearheaded by AJ Schnack ("Kurt Cobain, About a Son"), which will screen at the upcoming Los Angeles Film Festival and SilverDocs.

The list of people leaving the Denver festival and Film Society is included on the next page.

indieWIRE will continue to follow this story as it unfolds.

A list of resignations from the organization, with information provided or corroborated by multiple sources, follows:

Denver Film Society
Ron Henderson, Co-Founder and programming consultant
Britta Erickson, Associate Director (former Festival Director)
Brit Withey, Director of Programming (former Artistic Director)
Keith Garcia, Programming Manager, Starz FilmCenter
Natasha Hoover, Operations Manager
Emily Reaser, Manager of Major Gifts
Neil Truglio, Marketing Director

Starz Film Center and Film Festival staff
Oaken Beeson, Starz FilmCenter General Manager
Bob Forsyth, Technical Support (IT)
Alex Fountain, Projectionist
William Heydt Minor, Projectionist/Manager
Kristin Nolan, Production Manager
Josh Perry, Technical Director, Starz FilmCenter
Karla Rodriguez, Programming Coordinator
Chris Simpson, Projectionist
Ryan Smith, Projectionist
Sigri Strand, Manager, Starz FilmCenter

[Eugene Hernandez contributed to this article.]